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4 Reasons for Saying ‘No’

April 17, 2012

I often say that the No. 1 skill of consulting is knowing which deadlines you can move. But I realised recently what my No. 2 Rule is: knowing when to push back.

The defining aspect of being a PR consultant is being asked to do lots of stuff. Whether the request is from a client or a colleague, a consultant’s To-Do List can grow relentlessly and without limit. Keeping that beast under control is a constant challenge (and I’m not claiming I’ve cracked that one).

However, some requests should be denied. You know which ones they are, because you start swearing about the timeframe/complexity/uselessness of the task when the request comes in.

But guess what –  you can say ‘no’ … sometimes. Perhaps you can’t say ‘no’ outright, but you can change the parameters of it, in order to meet the exigencies of life.

So let’s look at 4 reasons to push back on a request:

1) The deadline is crazy. Sure, some things have an inbuilt deadline – a media inquiry for a daily news outlet comes to mind: you drop everything for that. But a client asking for a media release at midday on the Thursday before Easter, when the CEO won’t be around to approve it, and the media won’t be around to run it. ‘How about we get that to you next Tuesday?’…

2) The task is too complex. The problem with pretending to being an amazing expert on everything your client does is that they start to believe you are an expert. So when you get a request to write an article on corporate financing models, for example, you know the content will be crazy technical. ‘How about your subject matter expert writes a rough first draft, and we work on it from there?’…

3) The task is useless. Sometimes we do our jobs so well, we make it look easy to our clients; they think we can get media coverage on any old thing. So when they suggest writing a media release on survey data that’s the same as data from six months ago, they think we can sell that in to media. Um, no. ‘How about we do a one-page document with the key findings, and send it as an FYI?’…

4) The task is way harder than it looks. This one often comes up with reporting and analysis. A client asks if we ‘can just run a quick report on share of voice compared to our competitors’, or some such data that they neither ask nor pay us to collect. It’s hard to explain why you can’t do it, or that if they want it, they’ll need to invest more in reporting. The key here is understand why they want that data, and then see if you can rewrite the brief into something simpler, that still serves their purposes.

The thing to remember with all this is you don’t just say ‘no’ – you say ‘no, how about we do it this way?’. If you want to push back on something, you need to offer an alternative, or at the very least, a bloody good reason.

Get it right, however, and you have some chance of taming that terrifying To-Do List.

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  1. Good commercial lawyers call it the “No, but …” rule. In cases where the answer really is “NO, you just can’t legally do that,” it’s the creative suggestions or solutions about what could be done instead that keep the valuable clients, and maybe jag new ones through word of mouth from satisfied clients.

  2. I like everything about this!

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